Monthly Archives: April 2013

Searching for Royalty Checks from Low Budget Movies

sugarman posterThe day I saw “Searching for Sugar Man,” I received my first-ever royalty check from MGM/United Artists for a union film I worked on back in the 80s.  “Sugarman” won the 2012 Academy Award for best documentary.  The movie is a mind-bending story from the 1970s that  goes against the grain of typical show business success stories.  It’s about how success can be achieved by someone no one ever heard of, in a place that doesn’t count, then be forgotten and re-discovered in a series of weird coincidences.  It is a common story in show business.

“Searching  for Sugar Man” tells the story of singer-songwriter, Sixto Rodriguez, who played bars and coffee shops around Detroit. Rodriguez came up in the wake of Bob Dylan.  A former executive at Motown Records agreed to a record deal after Rodriguez was discovered by two respected Detroit record producers who agreed there was money to be made in the world of protest singers and folk music.  Sounds like the big break every artist dreams of, but the public disagreed, and like so many other singer-songwriters of the time, his records didn’t sell, and he vanished.

If Rodriguez had moved to Greenwich Village, like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul, and Mary and others, to be a part of the hyped-up  singer-songwriter scene there, it may have been a different story.   But Rodriguez was not interested in offering himself up to the hype machine of New York record labels.

Rodriguez would have sunk into eternal obscurity, except a bootleg of his record was smuggled into South Africa.  His protest songs charmed the local white progressive population who suffered under the apartheid regime of white supremacist thugs, and yearned to join the world-wide counter-culture ushered in by artists like the Beatles and Dylan.

South Africa at the time was the world’s pariah, and Western artists avoided the country like the plague, starving the progressives of the music and culture they wanted so badly.

Rodriguez’s bootleg record filled a void, and his rebellious songs became underground anthems for millions—  the South African equivalent of “Kumbaya”  and “ Satisfaction” rolled into one.  Rodriguez’s albums circulated by the hundreds of thousands, year after year in South Africa, in censored and uncensored and legal and bootleg versions.  A myth grew around Rodriguez in South Africa that he had committed suicide on stage to protest a cold, unfeeling world.  To the contrary, Rodriguez had remained in Detroit, worked as a laborer and quietly raised a family. His professional music career abruptly ended after his second non-selling album tanked and his recording contract was yanked.

A South African journalist tracked Rodriguez down  in the late 90s, and brought him to South Africa where sold-out several concert tours—and he was revered for helping bring down the apartheid system.

UA-CheckMy fresh $10.67 royalty check from MGM/UA on my desk, I was intrigued that South African record distributors claim they regularly sent royalty checks to A&M Records in the for the hundreds of thousands of Rodriguez albums sold.  Some say more than a million records were sold.  Rodriguez had no idea that more than a handful of his records had sold anywhere—he never received a royalty check either.  Sussex Records, the original American label was sold several times, and Clarence Avant, its founder cannot trace Rodriguez’s contract after forty years.

So, here’s the classic Show Biz Question: “Where are my royalties?”   The answer?  “There are no royalties, or, hire an attorney and just try to get them.”

Anyone with the slightest involvement in royalties knows this dialogue.  Of course, some stars do just fine collecting them.  Though certainly not a star, I’m astounded that the Directors Guild of America tracked me down after many decades to pay me a measly $10.67.  If it weren’t for a union contract, I’d never have received that.  I wish the Waters’ films I had worked on had DGA contracts.  I’m sure hundreds of others, who worked on low-budget-hell productions that eventually paid off, even decades later, would agree.

Wouldn’t  it be nice if all unions had no/low budget agreements and welcomed all to share in the spoils—rare as they are?  But how un-capitalist is that?  And former low/no budget filmmakers love capitalism, especially when they finally have the wherewithal to hire good attorneys.

 

Edith Massey, “Edie the Egg Lady” the Underground Movie Star: Her Life as an Orphan

Edith Massey as Edie the Egg Lady, played Divine's mother in "Pink Flamingos." It was her defining role, but not exactly what she dreamed of as an star-struck orphan in the 1920s.

Edith Massey as Edie the Egg Lady, played Divine’s mother in “Pink Flamingos.” It was her defining role, but not exactly what she dreamed of as an star-struck orphan in the 1920s.

Through occasional magazine articles, John Waters’ writings and stories, a few paragraphs in movie databases and my short film, “Love Letter to Edie,” brief snippets of Edith Massey’s life story have drifted along the edges of hipster culture in the thirty-three years since her underground movie debut in Waters’ “Multiple Maniacs” (April 10, 1970).

Since she was a little girl, Edith had “always wanted to be in the movies.”  She struggled through a unique and usually difficult life, generally in poverty while living and working on the bad side of  whatever town she landed in.  Her sweet, innocent personality, though, delighted millions of viewers of John Waters’ films—especially when he cast her in his favorite role as an addlepated old bag.  Edie was fine with that.  She was delighted to be the permissive, anything-goes-free-spirited godmother of the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ’80s counterculture.

One of Edith’s claims to fame was her willingness to present her over-sized breasts on film.  That, and her senior citizen characters who refused to honor the straight and narrow path were ground-breaking artistic statements of the early 1960s.

Still from "Love Letter to Edie."  Edith plays a barmaid at Pete's Hotel.

Still from “Love Letter to Edie.” Edith plays a barmaid at Pete’s Hotel.

Was she acting, or was she for real?  Even Newsweek wondered,  “It’s not clear whether she deserves an Oscar or a 24-hour nurse.”

In a recent phone call to Edith’s brother, Morris Grodsky, I learned more about Edith’s young life as an orphan.  This previously unpublished information provides additional pieces to the puzzle of her life.

Edith was born in Chicago on May 28, 1918 to a Jewish family.  Her father fought in Europe in World War I, but returned home early, after his lungs were severely burned in a gas attack.  The family moved to Colorado for the healthier air, which was where Edith was born.  Unfortunately, the fresh air didn’t help her father who wasted away and died when Edith was an infant.  Edith’s mother, destitute with three children re-married.  She had more children with this new husband, but he too died within a few years, leaving her alone with five children.

Desperate, the young widow took them all to a Jewish orphanage outside Denver, and then disappeared.  It was the best she could do.  According to Morris, the orphanage was not a terrible place.  The food was healthy, if not plentiful (he remembered being always hungry).  Their clothes were donated hand-me-downs.  The children had chores; cleaning and sewing for the girls, and grounds-keeping for the boys.   Most of the projects were pointless busy-work things like moving piles of rocks for the boys or washing dishes that weren’t dirty for the girls.   Every weekday morning they walked to a nearby school.  Saturdays were holy days, with nothing to do and Sundays were chore days.

Edith at the orphanage c. 1922.  Photo courtesy of Morris Grodsky, Edith's half-brother who was with her at the orphanage.

Edith at the orphanage c. 1922. Photo courtesy of Morris Grodsky, Edith’s half-brother who was with her at the orphanage.

Boys and girls lived in separate wings of the orphanage and rarely mixed, following religious tradition.  Morris didn’t see Edith, except for a few minutes on an occasional weekend.  The orphanage discouraged sibling contact.  They never celebrated birthdays or other events together.  Parents and relatives never visited.   It was a lonely existence.  The orphans yearned for just one new piece of clothing.

At school, they saw happy classmates with parents who gave them gifts and new shoes.  Every orphan child hoped and prayed to be adopted into a family.  But that day never came, for anyone.  They were outcasts, which must have helped form Edith’s sympathetic personality.  As an adult, she was an instant friend to everybody, and every animal that crossed her path– when I lived around the corner from her in Baltimore, she had 30 cats.

To escape her colorless life, Edith collected movie magazines that were donated to the orphanage.  It was the roaring ‘20s, and they lit up her life like a Roman candle.  She had a pair of scissors and on Saturdays carefully cut and arranged glamorous movie star photos in her own notebooks.  Morris was shocked, when on one of the rare visits, she showed him a stack of the notebooks that must have taken hundreds of dreamy hours to assemble.  He called her “movie crazy” when she swore that as soon as she could get out of the orphanage, she would go straight to Hollywood and get into the movies.

The orphanage had a strict path for its charges.  The boys learned Hebrew, to prepare them to be observant Jews.  The girls, having no role in religious services, were given no religious instruction.  In the eighth grade, the boys were given an academic test.  Those who did well went on to high school.  Those who did not were apprenticed out to local tradesmen, leaving the orphanage to work in family businesses.  Those who went to high school stayed at the orphanage, but were turned out at graduation, to find a job and fend for themselves.

Every girl’s education ceased after eighth grade.  There was no academic exam for girls to go to high school. Their path was to be discharged from the orphanage and placed as housekeepers in local homes, to cook, clean, and sew as they had been taught at the orphanage.  They’d work a few years for free, and then marry a local tradesman, stay home and raise the children, and so complete a healthy heterosexual life cycle.

Still from "Love Letter to Edie" of Edith acting out her dream of being a glamorous movie queen.

Still from “Love Letter to Edie” of Edith acting out her dream of being a glamorous movie queen.

It didn’t always work out that way.  There were girls like Edith who were dreamers and achievers and wanted more than a life of cooking and cleaning.  Being a housekeeper in a family was rarely idyllic.  The girls were frequently mistreated, over-worked, and, probably worse.  Many fled their assigned “homes” for freedom and all they had been denied in the orphanage.

This was Edith’s story.  She ran away several times from several families.  Each time she was picked up by the police, usually hitch-hiking at the edge of town, and returned, until she turned sixteen, and could legally be on her own.  At sixteen, Edith ran away again and headed straight to California.

Edith's thrift shop in Baltimore's Fells Point where she sold whatever anyone dropped off, happily signed autographs, and hoped she will still be discovered for big movie roles.

Edith’s thrift shop in Baltimore’s Fells Point where she sold whatever anyone dropped off, happily signed autographs, and hoped she will still be discovered for big movie roles.

This is where “Love Letter to Edie” picks up.  There is much more to her life than what appears in the short movie; her marriages, her relationship with her brothers and sisters and their families, her music and modeling careers.

Edith died on October 24, 1984, in Hollywood, the land of her dreams, after suffering from cancer for many years.  She was cremated and her ashes were scattered in the lovely “Garden of Roses” at the Westwood Memorial Park in Los Angeles.

I wish I had had the presence of mind to record more of her story when I made “Love Letter,” but I was 23 years old, and thought I had forever to pick up the trail again.  Maybe one day.  You can find “Love Letter to Edie on e-Bay.”

This glamor shot of Edith was taken late in life, and was closer to her dreams than her roles in the Waters films.

This glamor shot of Edith was taken late in life, and was closer to her dreams than her roles in the Waters films.